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Woman standing by a river contemplating her anxiety issues at the workplace

Anxiety in the Workplace: Breaking the Silence

Reading time | 4 mins

‘You’ve finally done it. You’ve ruined your life.’

I’m running down The Strand in London, sobbing hysterically. People are staring, but I don’t care. I don’t care about anything anymore.

All I want to do is run.

Ten minutes earlier, I was in an important meeting. I was talking to a room of 20 people when it hit. The heart palpitations, the sweating, the difficulty breathing. I thought I was dying or losing my mind. Either way, I had to leave immediately.

The next day I get diagnosed with social anxiety and panic attacks. It took the doctor roughly thirty seconds to put a label on the monster that had been stalking me for years.

‘Didn’t you alert your manager, or the HR department?’ he asked. I almost laughed in his face. No, I did not alert anyone at work. In fact, I had actively been hiding my condition for ten years. What would my colleagues think if I admitted that I had anxiety? I was certain I would never be trusted professionally again.

What if I get ‘caught out’?

It turns out I was not the only one with this attitude. In 2020, 828,000 people reported feeling work-related stress and anxiety. Yet, according to the BBC, a staggering 80% of people in 2020 tried to “push through” their anxiety rather than take time off. This could be due to a fear of being judged negatively by colleagues or management.

Lucy Graves, a PR executive from Manchester, decided to leave a job she loved when her mental health was on the decline. Her fear of being “caught out” and being branded “crazy” overrode the desire to be honest about her condition.

Here’s what she told me:

Every time my manager asked me to take the lead on a client presentation, I would freak out. He didn’t know that I had anxiety and I was terrified that I would lose my job if he did. I wouldn’t sleep or eat for days beforehand and after the presentation was over, I’d cry in the toilets. I left the company before I was caught out. (Lucy Graves)

I asked whether she considered talking to her manager before resigning. 

No. What if he told competitors, or other contacts that I was a nutter? I couldn’t risk it. Better to leave.  (Lucy Graves)

Had I not experienced something similar in my own life, I would’ve found Lucy’s story unbelievable. However, this fear of being ‘caught out’ by an employer can be overpowering.

After my diagnosis I took a leave of absence from work and I used the time to start my blog. I wanted to share my experiences and help others to navigate the world of mental illness! It’s important that we understand conditions as this will help to reduce stigma.   

Breaking the stigma

Before returning to work I also did some research into my rights. I found that in the UK, mental illness is covered under the Disability Discrimination Act, thereby making it illegal for an employer to discriminate on these grounds. To put it plainly, a person cannot be sacked because he/she has anxiety.

This fear of being ‘let go,’ because of my illness was not only irrational but incorrect.  

With regards to adequate mental health care in the workplace, organisations such as Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), try to enforce change in employer understanding, particularly in bigger companies. MHFA run courses that train management in mental wellbeing and how to support a member of staff living with a disorder. From their mission statement:

  • We all have mental health. Better mental health is good for everyone and recognising this is good for society.
  • We want a society where everyone can thrive. We believe in zero stigma surrounding mental health. We want mental health to be openly discussed and supported.
  • We want our training to create an unshakable belief that we can all talk freely about mental health and seek support when we need it. We will achieve this through our mission to train one in ten people in mental health awareness and skills.

Taking control

Ultimately however, it’s up to the individual (so YOU) to safeguard your own mental health. To use a favourite analogy of mine… Would you suffer in silence if your leg was broken? Or if you’d been sick five times in the toilets? I like to think that you wouldn’t. The brain deserves the same respect as the body.

From my experience, I know it’s time to act when:

  • I don’t feel right in myself, e.g. the negative thoughts and feelings that circulate throughout my brain are starting to affect my daily life, on a continued basis.
  • I feel more emotional or tired than usual and my sleep patterns change.
  • There is a change in my appetite, e.g. binge eating, or in contrast, skipping meals entirely.
  • I’m reluctant to engage in social activities.
  • No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to switch off.

How to seek help:

  • The first step is simple: go and see your GP. Make a list of symptoms and be honest.
  • If you need time off, TAKE IT. Your brain, like your body, might need time to heal.
  • Know your rights, both within the company that you work for and in general. Do your research to find out what your company policy is around mental health and chronic illness.
  • Schedule a meeting with your line manager and a member of HR (if possible) and explain how you are feeling and find out what they can do to help.
  • Accept that you’re not feeling well and be kind to yourself. You’re not pathetic, you’re human!

The takeaway

If I could go back in time and chase after that hysterical woman on The Strand, I’d tell her the following:

“It’s OK, you have anxiety. That isn’t an offense! There are ways to manage it and if your employer doesn’t want to support you through this, then there are better companies to work for.”

NPS-IE-NP-00194 February 2021